Gerald M. Wilson's appointment as police chief in Prince George's County last summer was the high point of a career that began 18 years ago when he joined the force as a patrol officer.
But Wilson's triumph was soon tempered by uncertainty. Within four months, Jack B. Johnson (D) was elected county executive after campaigning on the promise to reform a police force that is the target of a federal civil rights investigation.
While Johnson says he's still deciding whether to bring in a new chief, his refusal to embrace Wilson has fed the impression within the department and among the county's political leaders that he's seeking a new commander for the 1,400-member force.
If the de facto job probation isn't awkward enough for Wilson, Johnson also hired former New York City police commissioner Patrick V. Murphy to help evaluate the chief. Murphy was assigned an office at police headquarters, one floor below Wilson's, and will have substantial input before Johnson reaches his final decision.
In his public rounds, Wilson is often personable and engaging, greeting friends and strangers with a warm smile and a handshake. But in recent weeks, the chief has shown signs of strain, complaining about reporters who pepper Johnson with questions about his job.
Wilson, 39, who was appointed by former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D), declined in an interview last week to talk about the questions surrounding his future. Instead, he said he's focused on his daily duties and is planning a number of initiatives that he said will enhance the department's image and reduce violent crime.
"I come to work, and I work," Wilson said. "I'm just trying to be a good chief."
The appointment of a police chief is often the most high-profile selection of any new mayor or county executive. In Johnson's case, his promise of police reform -- a cornerstone of his campaign -- seemed to contain the expectation of a departmental shake-up.
"If this was your major issue, you've got to demonstrate that you're coming in and getting in front of the problem," said state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), who endorsed Johnson. "I would have thought he would have made the move already."
Johnson encountered questions about Wilson's future immediately after his victory in the Nov. 5 general election. At several points in recent weeks, Johnson has said he would reach a decision by early to mid-January. But last week, Johnson said he "probably misspoke" on the timing and that the process may extend into February.
"The one thing I'm not going to do is rush into a decision," he said. "We will reach a decision very shortly on where we're going to go."
Johnson said he has not sought out anyone for the job, including two people who are frequently mentioned as possible contenders by his allies and officials in law enforcement circles: Sonia Proctor, the former District police chief who is a deputy director at the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, and Maj. Roberto Hylton, a commander on the Prince George's force who was among few county officers who publicly backed Johnson during the campaign.
Johnson dismissed the talk of candidates for the job as the routine gossip of a government in transition.
As for his assessment of Wilson, Johnson was measured, saying he was impressed with the chief during a two-hour meeting the men recently had to talk about the department. "He made a strong case for what he wants to do," Johnson said. "He has a lot of supporters, and he doesn't have a lot of detractors."
At the same time, Johnson said, "I'm not required to handpick him because Wayne picked him."
Before reaching his decision, Johnson said, he will speak at length to Murphy, the District's former public safety director whom Johnson hired as a consultant to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the Prince George's police force.
Murphy, who in recent weeks has talked extensively with Wilson about the department, is hardly effusive in his praise for the chief, even as he says he has not reached a "final conclusion" on whether Johnson should keep him.
"The call will not be an easy call," Murphy said.
Murphy described Wilson as "young" for a police chief, "conscientious" and "a product of this police culture."
"He suffers from the disadvantage of spending his whole career in one department," Murphy said. "You're limited in your outlook and perspective by the traditions of that one department. And this is a department that needs some change."
But Murphy acknowledged that the department's troubles persisted despite Curry's appointment eight years ago of an outsider, John S. Farrell, who came from Florida. Wilson took over the force after Farrell resigned last year.
"I'm well aware, and I respect the attitude in the department that some of their own are worthy," Murphy said.
The challenges facing the Prince George's police force are formidable no matter who is at the helm.
After years of declining crime, the county recorded 135 homicides in 2002, up from 117 the previous year. Only three years ago, the number of murders was 71.
The community's trust in the force has repeatedly been shaken by incidents of alleged misconduct and police shootings, including four last month over a three-day period. More than two years ago, the federal government began a civil rights investigation into the department -- a probe that still continues.
In addition, morale remains low among officers, who complain about being poorly paid, under-appreciated and second-guessed by county officials and residents.
Since taking over as chief, Wilson has won praise for being visible in the community and for maintaining communications with civic leaders, including after the police shootings last month.
"His style is so completely different than Farrell. Farrell was a protectionist; Farrell never let you know what was going on. Gerald is real upfront," said Edythe Flemings Hall, head of the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP.
Hall said she hopes Johnson keeps Wilson. "What we didn't have was a willingness to confront some of the problems and be accountable, and it appears that we have turned the corner on that," she said. "I find Gerald willing to look at the situation for what it is."
Anthony Walker, the leader of the county's Fraternal Order of Police unit, agreed that Wilson's more public posture has been constructive. "For so long, there was no communication, which always led to uncertainty and questioning," Walker said.
At the same time, Walker said the chief has irked officers by seeking to implement broad changes -- rearranging shift schedules, for example -- without knowing whether he would be retained by the new county executive. "I'm not sure they were prudent," he said.
Asked whether he would advise Johnson to keep Wilson, Walker said, "You've got me stuttering on that. I don't know if there's a win or lose answer. If I knew it was going to be candidate A or B, it would be different. But I don't."
In the interview Thursday, Wilson was the picture of a man focused on his job, saying he will soon announce a program to "get guns off the street." He said he also plans to unveil measures to improve communication between county residents and police officers.
At no point did he talk of the possibility that the job he always wanted may not be his to keep. "I consider myself blessed," Wilson said, "and I am indeed thankful for every day I have to serve as the police chief of this department."